From the moment last August when long-serving general manager John Doyle was fired, the fate of Dominic Kinnear as San Jose Earthquakes head coach was uncertain. After all, Doyle was responsible for bringing back his childhood friend to lead the team back in 2015, and the Quakes had shown only moderate improvement in Kinnear’s second go around as the man in charge.
When the club handed Jesse Fioranelli the general manager reins in January, it was widely speculated that the Italian would want to bring in his own head coach to lead the Quakes on-field efforts. Fioranelli initially dismissed that idea, stating that he needed time to learn about the organization before making any such decisions.
And so, with half the MLS regular season in the books, and the team earning nearly the same number of points per game as it had the previous two seasons — hardly the improvement the club expected — Fioranelli pulled the plug on Kinnear, as well as his chief assistant coach John Spencer. Technical director Chris Leitch takes over the head coaching role, and director of methodology Alex Covelo moves into an assistant coaching position.
"First and foremost, we would like to thank Dominic for his hard work, professionalism and contributions to this club over the years," said Fioranelli in a club statement. "He worked hard this year and was a first-class person all the way. This decision was made after a lot of thought and evaluation. We decided that we wanted to go in a different direction as we continue to build the identity of this club."
Kinnear completes his second stint in charge of the Earthquakes with a 27-31-27 record and zero playoff appearances. He did post a 13-13-8 record his first year in charge — a 17 point improvement over the reign of Mark Watson in 2014 — but the rest of the Western Conference always seemed to be a step or two ahead of the Quakes the past two-and-a-half years. And with a new stadium to fill every home game — one that holds 18,000 but often appears to only contain half of that at recent matches — the organization needed to make a change.
"I would like to thank the ownership group for giving me the opportunity to coach the club," said Kinnear in a club statement. "I want to thank my staff for all their hard work and I wish the players the best of luck going forward."
Assistant coach Steve Ralston and goalkeeper coach Tim Hanley will retain their jobs under Leitch and Covelo, as the Quakes keep a small level of consistency in their coaching ranks. Leitch himself was given the head coach responsibilities outright, not simply given the placeholder title of “interim head coach.” The 10-year MLS veteran retired as an Earthquake in 2011 and took on the role of Academy director and interim general manager.
"Chris is the ideal person to take this role for the Earthquakes at this time," said Fioranelli. "He has a history with the club and has very good knowledge of our entire development pipeline from the youth teams, through PDL and USL up to the first team. He combines that with a shared vision for the club's identity that we have been developing for the past months. Chris and Alex give us two very good soccer minds with a desire to make this club one of the best in MLS."
The timing of Kinnear’s dismissal was a bit unusual, given that it occurred the morning after the Quakes had defeated Real Salt Lake 2-1 to move into fifth place in the West at the midpoint of the season. Many believed that while Kinnear was on a short leash, he would at least have the opportunity to try and guide this team to its first postseason appearance since 2012. Instead, that responsibility will fall to Leitch and Covelo, all with Fioranelli’s stamp of approval.
"I am grateful to have an opportunity to coach at this club,” said Leitch in a club statement. “I am looking forward to getting onto the field and working with this great group of players and staff. Our immediate goal is to make the playoffs this year and we can definitely accomplish that if we all work hard together."
The Quakes brought in a series of higher priced players to start this season — all players that fit with Fioranelli’s initial vision for the club’s future. Forwards Marco Urena and Danny Hoesen, midfielder Jahmir Hyka, and defender Florian Jungwirth have all been steady contributors for the Earthquakes in 2017. However, the infusion of talent did little to overcome the team’s offensive woes, and after averaging a dismal 0.94 goals per game last season, the Quakes have only marginally improved that mark to 1.06 goals per game this year. The blame came down, rightfully or not, on Kinnear.
Part of San Jose’s struggles this season have come at Avaya Stadium, where the Quakes are only 4-1-4 at the midway point — the second fewest home wins in the 11-team Western Conference. The Earthquakes do have two road victories so far in 2017 — twice as many as last season — but they’ve also looked lethargic in shutout losses at the Houston Dynamo, Colorado Rapids, and Portland Timbers. The performances gave the Quakes faithful little to get enthusiastic about.
The Earthquakes announced just last week the high profile signing of Georgian attacking midfielder Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili as a Designated Player. The 24-year-old international is expected to charge the offense when he is eligible to play starting July 10 — the opening of the MLS Secondary Transfer Window. Vako fits the profile of the players Fioranelli is targeting as he continues to revamp the roster, and Leitch will be the man to help him adjust to MLS and San Jose as he takes over for the venerable Kinnear.
Kinnear took over the Earthquakes ahead of the 2004 season, and he has patrolled an MLS sideline for San Jose or Houston every week since. In 13-and-a-half seasons with the Quakes and Dynamo, over 435 regular season games, Kinnear has amassed a record of 166-135-134 and one Supporters’ Shield. In the postseason, he has reached four MLS Cup Finals — all with Houston — winning two. He is currently third all-time in MLS in victories, behind only Sigi Schmid (228) and Bruce Arena (202).
Without a single game of top-level coaching to his credit, Leitch will have big shoes to fill, though he will certainly lean on his many other post playing career experiences. It remains to be seen if he can make a successful transition to the sideline and find a way to rally the current roster to a postseason berth. He won’t have to wait very long to make his mark.
On Wednesday, San Jose plays host to the Seattle Sounders in the Round of 16 of the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament. Leitch will make his MLS head coaching debut three days later, fittingly against arch rivals the LA Galaxy, in the Quakes annual Stanford Stadium “Summer of Soccer” California Clasico.